The new Spruce Peak Arts Center in Stowe will open its doors to the public just after Christmas; for now, there's a cathedral-like silence in the spacious theater. Take a seat in the hall with the director busy bringing it to life, however, and the space seems to buzz with the hushed murmuring of an opening night.
"When people walk in, it's like they've walked into church," says David Rowell, executive director of the 420-seat performance space. "There's this reverent moment."
Rowell knows show business. He has directed and opened other performing-arts centers, including the Luther F. Carson Four Rivers Center in Kentucky and Peery's Egyptian Theater in Utah. Trained as a dancer and an actor, he's had experience on stage, too.
"I've been there; I have the T-shirt," he jokes.
But for the last five years Rowell taught and headed the MFA Theater Management Program at Florida State University's School of Theater. He enjoyed it, he says, but was itching to get back at the helm of a performance space.
"I was looking for a small to medium-sized venue, and I really wanted to be in Vermont," Rowell says.
His connections to the state go way back. He shares a few ancestors with Craftsbury violinist Mary Rowell, and his parents live in Middlebury. While growing up in New Jersey, he used to vacation in the Stowe area with his family.
The center is technically part of Stowe Mountain Resort, but Rowell envisions it as "a gathering place for everybody." He wants to draw audiences from around the state and beyond.
He sees himself as the consummate host. "When I invite an artist to perform here, I'm inviting them into my home," he declares. "And the same with the audience — you're a guest in my home."
Rowell loves being involved with the audience. "My favorite is when people call me and ask, What should I wear?'" The answer may vary, as the programming at Spruce Peak will be diverse — ticket prices are in the $30 to $50 range — including family shows, ballet, theater, comedy and movies.
And then there's the educational component. Spruce Peak will offer a daytime series for area schools; master classes in music, dance and theater; residencies for artists; and an internship program.
Rowell is a huge movie buff. When his phone rings in the middle of a recent interview, it plays a tinny version of the theme song from Top Gun — though his 9-year-old son is responsible for that, he notes.
At Spruce Peak, Rowell is starting a series of screenings and post-movie talks on the American Film Institute's Top 100 films, beginning with Casablanca. Every second Tuesday of the month will be Ladies' Night, when a ticket gets gals a chick flick, champagne and chocolate.
A series close to Rowell's heart is "classics you may never have heard of," including underground hits such as The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, a 1984 sci-fi flick starring John Lithgow and Ellen Barkin.
The center's grand-opening programming begins the week of December 27 and features performances by Tony Award-winning Broadway actor Ben Vereen; the Brooklyn Rundfunk Orkestrata performing The Hills Are Alive, a hip-hop rendition of the songs from The Sound of Music (authorized by Rodgers & Hammerstein); fiddler Eileen Ivers, who cofounded the Irish American group cherish the Ladies; and Sara Watkins of blugrass band Nickel Creek.
"I'll explore any option. We can do anything but The Lion King," Rowell says, then explains that, while the 77-by-31-foot stage is big for a 420-seat theater, there's no fly system — curtains only run side to side, not up and down. That makes it hard to accommodate shows like the Disney hit with their elaborate flying set pieces.
But everything else is on the table. Rowell is excited about booking the Afro-Cuban All Stars, "The Logger" Rusty DeWees and Canadian actor Rick Miller, who does a one-man show called MacHomer — a wacky melding of Macbeth and "The Simpsons." At the end of February, the center will host Star Trek Live, a series of interactive performances and screenings in which everybody with a ticket becomes a cadet on the starship Enterprise.
"It's for kids, families and geeks like myself," Rowell says.